James Abbott McNeill Whistler was born July 11, 1834, and died in 1903. His life was extraordinary because in an age when exhibitionism was considered vulgar, his flamboyant egotism and scorn of propriety were for the most part tolerated, even with amusement, among select circles in London. Though later in life disgust and vitriolic criticism were often joined with this amusement, for most of his career he enjoyed a peculiar immunity from the disciplines of society, whether spelt with a large "s" or small. He had great personal charm, which doubtless had much to do with his popularity, but the most important factor was a respect arising from his unquestioned artistic genius and his inability ever to be satisfied with near perfection in his work.
Had he lived in this age, his clearness of artistic vision would probably have indicated to him new trends in realistic painting. Early in his life as an artist, he proclaimed the quality of Japanese painting before the Western world accepted it as a fad, or before the Eastern world came to appreciate its own.
In Whistler's "What the hell" attitude was a preview of the century to come, but let not that pose blind one to his ability to work and to create. This transplanted American boldly "flung his pot of paint in the public face, "according to Ruskin. Even that gesture took long hours of work. The tall, handsome figure, with waving locks, moved lightly and surprisingly from the side of his mother in her snug London apartment to his own apartment where studies in black and white, or in gold and blue, were swiftly finding canvas between midnight carousals, gay talk, and moody moments at the Thames' banks.
p223 The debonair artist has been studied from the Freudian to the "pseudo‑ian" angles; from the boulevardier to the bohemian. This inquiry into the character of the man is a consideration of the military thread within his artistic character, and the contrast of the eccentric self-advertiser with the modest railroad builder who was his father.
The formation of a quiet, well-poised teen‑age youngster into the flamboyant, outwardly undisciplined bohemian is startling.
Born of a soldier-engineer father, he was "no agent of discord" while the strong-charactered parent lived. Though not ashamed of the busy, useful life of his engineer father, young Whistler always cast a fog around the place of his birth. He variously reported it as St. Petersburg, Baltimore, Stonington in Connecticut, and even the true spot of Lowell, Massachusetts. During the first eight years of his life, he saw little of his father in the day-to‑day existence, for the elder Whistler had left the Army a few months before James, the first child of his second marriage, was born. The father, George Washington Whistler, was at work early each morning testing locomotives, not as an inventor but as a capable re‑designer and rebuilder. His work with Stephenson's English locomotives improved their pulling power on slight grades. During the next few years the surveying, and track-laying of the Boston & Albany rail line placed the father on a traveling salesman schedule. Early Monday morning he was off to work and it was Saturday night when he returned. The veneration of the Sabbath had been one of the changes in his life occasioned by the marriage to strict Anna McNeill. Not that Whistler, the elder, was irreligious, but life in the wilds and attention to work, were not conducive to church-going.
In 1842, the Whistler family was alternately buoyed and depressed by the offer of the fabulous salary of $12,000 a year that the Major was to receive for building the first Russian railway — the Moscow‑St. Petersburg line.
Like any other boy, Jimmie was keyed up by the prospect of p224 visiting a strange new land, where the Tsar ruled supreme like a god, where the snow lay thick on the ground for many months of the year. After a year's delay, the Whistler family bore the slow passage to England where they visited relatives. Then on to Russia, and slowly they moved up the Neva river to St. Petersburg. The steamer stopped in view of the spires of the city flashing their near-Oriental greeting as the Major's voice called the unintelligible welcome of reunion. The sight of his family after fifteen months brought excited chattering. But two children were gone since the last meeting of the family. Kirk Boott had died in Stonington, Charlie on shipboard in the last stage of the journey.
Life in Russia was pleasant. There was no atmosphere calculated to make any of the children great artists. Major Whistler, hardworking, and something of a wit and funster; Anna, the mother, puritanical at times; Deborah, nicknamed Dasha in Russia, an attractive daughter of Whistler by his first wife. Jimmie and William were growing up and it was they in their contrasting ways who caught the attention of the remainder of the family. George, the eldest son of Whistler's first marriage, remained in America.
Some biographers, notably Elizabeth Mumford, give the impression that little Jimmie crawled into his mother's lap while he was learning to talk to tell her that he wanted to paint her picture. True enough, the youth showed high regard for his mother, for on his tenth birthday he wrote a boyishly effusive poem to her, but it is doubtful if his parents subscribed to any desire of their son to take up seriously the profession of painting. The Major liked to work with the drawing pencil; but then he also played the flute. Both avocations were never considered as serious lifetime professions. The Major believed in work. Although he had left the American Army, it was still in his blood. His father had been an Army officer; all of his friends were also of the Army. Joseph Gardner Swift, his counselor; his two West Point pals, William Swift, and William McNeill. Probably the best example of the deep strain of the father's p225 influence was James' desire to enter West Point. The constant references to that place during the following fifty years of the artist's life leave an impress on most of the artist's biographers. Late in life, when James McNeill Whistler felt the distaste of America, there still remained one part that he liked and loved — West Point.
The Major's ambition for his son was that first he should obtain the training at West Point, and then after graduation move into some professional field, perhaps into engineering. But George Washington Whistler was a cautious man and one not given to interfering in his children's lives. It hurt him deeply when his beloved Deborah went off to England to marry Seymour Haden, a doctor and an artist; but he controlled his feelings as best he could, possibly taking a little of his chagrin out on his future son-in‑law. With his other children there is no record of the father's dictation, though his influence was considerable because of his own attention to work and his modesty about his achievements.
While young James Whistler "learned John Gilpin to spout to his father," the parent in turn was looking over his son's shoulder to teach him drawing. When he was eleven years of age, Jimmie was transferred from private tutors to the Academy of Fine Arts. There he pitched into his work, trying to catch on paper the exact shape and precise shade of "even a drop of water." The son inherited from his father the same attention to exact detail, though the father's work was in drawing railroad curves and grades.
As the father directed the schooling of his son, he was thinking not of a career in art for him, but of the happy hours which art would give in respite from the rigors of engineering construction. The Major was thinking of his difficulties with the Russian serfs who were neither willing nor anxious to learn how to work, of the lack of skilled mechanics, of the harassing climatic conditions, and of the graft even among his associates — men upon whom he had to rely in order to complete his rail line from Moscow to St. Petersburg.
p226 Jimmie was growing up and his father seemed not to have planned for his preparatory education in the formal American way of people of his station in life. The Major often voiced his desire to return to America, but all else must wait while he won the battle of Russia.
When Jimmie was approaching fifteen years, his father died and swept away the opportunities for travel, for art study, and for life in the exotic Europe that so enwrapped the son. But James still had his Hogarth engravings, given to him while suffering from a childhood attack of rheumatism. The master, whom James Whistler regarded as "the greatest English artist that ever lived," was a solace in the sudden descent of the family fortunes.
Upon the return to America, the younger Whistler moved into a different circle. Snatched as he was from the extravagant life near the Tsar's court and the opportunities for private tutoring, and subsequently for the best private school education in Russia, he was delivered over to his uncles, William McNeill and William Swift — brothers of George Whistler's two wives. Anna returned to Stonington, Connecticut, to bury her husband, and to meet the problem of overcoming her boys' lack of practical American education. She sought a seminary of learning, and possibly due to her West Point influences, selected a school conducted by Dr. Roswell Park. At his Pomfret Academy in Connecticut, she could compromise with her conscience. Had not the Major longed under the surface for a disciplined life for his sons; did not her longing for a decent Christian education lean toward a school conducted by a churchman? The long-necked, solemn Dr. Park, West Point graduate and Pastor of Pomfret's Christ Church filled her specifications. Perhaps Dr. Park could assuage the West Pointers in her life while leading her son to the ministry, or perhaps into architecture. Art, as a life work, was not thought of.
At Pomfret, Jimmie was quite amenable to the discipline of the Church school. True, he was sent home from school on occasion because of irreverence at the daily morning prayers p227 but his well-poised good manner, his willingness "to make amends" endeared him to his superiors. His other side was the long-haired, ebullient youngster with the "foreign appearance" leading his schoolmates into pranks that only his agile brain could conceive. One day he appeared at school "in a high, stiff collar and a stock," like those worn by the venerable pastor-professor. The amusement was on the side of his fellows, for there was little that the teachers could directly accomplish as punishment.
There was more and more the show‑off about James as he grew older. His dark, waving hair with curls, was Byronesque, as was his open shirt front, and the attention-gathering air of indifference as he strode into class. Once there, like many another boy, he bothered not with the lecture being given but busied himself with caricature and portraits of instructors and companions.
At West Point, he continued his dramatic life with its fondness for display, though he lost the long boy curls. The astonishing clothes he later affected may have sprung in contrast from that period of uniformed regularity; and perhaps the rapier tongue also sprang from the curtailment of his natural talkative instincts by the West Point authorities.
The Military Academy at mid‑century was not a home for mollycoddles, and that was what young James Whistler had become. Perhaps the fault was not his own, but rather of a mother who had to lean on her sons when her husband was gone. She wept for his curls; worried over his poor application to academic life; went through agonies that her son might touch a bottle, or fall off a horse when jumping in competition. But that was West Point and American college life of the mid‑century. Her son naturally would lead the parade of pranksters but to believe him a perfect devil among the cadets is to malign them. Below Whistler on the conduct list were a number of cadets, including Francis Vinton, later rector of New York's Trinity Church. The elder Whistler too had been caught in various pranks while a cadet.
p228 The curriculum at West Point was mainly one of pure and applied mathematics with only so much of the cultural subjects added as the growing list of graduates demanded. Other than Engineering, Natural and Experimental Philosophy, Chemistry, Algebra, and other technical subjects, the cadets of the 1850's studied English literature and grammar. The Drawing Department had usually gone in strongly for architectural work and for pencil sketching. The professor of Drawing, on a permanent appointment, was Robert Weir, whose own particular liking for water colors caused him to stretch out the course to add 100 hours of advanced work in water colors. Then in the glow of the established artist-turned-teacher, he wasted no time on lectures and verbal inquiry but pitched in with his brush to instruct the cadets by demonstration. The second (junior) class was so dazzled by his skill that few of them, according to their testimony, took away any knowledge of water coloring.
This course in its contrast to the mechanical routine of others in the curriculum made life at West Point bearable for James Whistler. He himself turned to drawing little sidelights of cadet life, particularly one of a cadet on guard — now a treasure in the Academy library. To vary life there were visits from Kemble's family, the well-known owner of the West Point Iron Foundry across the river at Garrison. At the Kemble home, James previously had met through Joseph Gardner Swift many of the best friends of his father.
As James Whistler flew swiftly through life, the days at West Point were not wasted. Though he was no shining light in his classes, other than in Drawing, he had no particular difficulty with academic work. He was completing his third year at the Academy when an unfortunate accident to another determined his fate. Professor Bailey, head of the Chemistry Department, had a firm conviction that any cadet who was nearing completion of his first three years, and had not displayed any congenital weakness debarring him from a commission should not be hindered in his upward course to a diploma because of a p229 slight lack of chemical knowledge. While on the steamboat Henry Clay on a short trip from West Point, Professor Bailey and his family were caught in the explosion and burning of that boat. The professor's family was wiped out and he was left to care for their burial and to mourn their loss.a
Meanwhile, Lieutenant Caleb Huse was in charge. In the small section room with a dozen cadets sitting below and under his nose, the slightest action by any one caught attention. Time and again he would look down at Cadet Whistler's uncombed hair waving its raven dishevelment to the winds. Time and again, Lieutenant Whistler sent Mr. Whistler off to his room to comb the same unsoldierly head of hair. To escape the wrath of his instructor, James Whistler took to combing his hair with his long fingers by running them through it in that gliding way of his. Enough was enough. This man was not cut out to be a soldier and Caleb Huse was not willing to pass over Whistler's slight deficiencies in chemistry.
To Whistler's credit it should be said that he did not rant and rave at the instructor but merely concocted the pleasant little explanation that "Had silicon been a gas, I would now be a major general."
Whistler was never one to worry about what came next. His irresponsible attitude sprang from his upbringing; his inability to worry sprang from the knowledge that his mother would worry anyway, so, naïvely, why should he, even though he loved her and would do most anything to please her. His spur‑of-the‑moment gestures, such as the addition of McNeill to his James Abbott, were to assuage her for the loss of her son during much of her widowhood.
But when Jimmie left West Point, he could not go home to face the prayerful silence that awaited him. Together with his brother, Willie, two years his junior and an ex‑student at Columbia University for the same reason as his older brother had left West Point, he went to work in the Winans Machine Shops. The Major had aided Winans in growing from a machinist to a millionaire locomotive builder. Whistler could not p230 without distaste run his greasy hands through those flowing locks, nor could he wear a jaunty outfit to work. Turning away from this clamor of metal on metal, James next thought to use his sketching and draftsmanship in the Coast and Geodetic Survey of the United States in Washington, D. C. Again, friends of father got him a job, for his tearful mother was at a loss where to send her boy.
Work with the Coast Survey had to have its compensations, but again there was not in the close life of the draftsman, the opportunity to throw back his head and be the actor. Heads bent over plotting boards do not make an alert audience.
Jimmie sought the gay life, or rather it was already manufactured in the city of Washington, and the name of McNeill and Whistler in one combination was not one to deter hosts and hostesses. The twenty-year‑old youth was a fixture at parties, for he could talk of Russia, of travel, of painting, of life at West Point. And when he was stuck for an answer he could throw back his head and impudently try another subject.
His work at the drafting board suffered from lack of attention. Six days of work in January, and a lesser number in February and caricatures covering his drafting board broke the resistance of the Major's friends. The gay, flamboyant youth was ready to say, "I am never late. You open your offices too early." Who was there to turn to in this hour? Uncle William Gibbs McNeill had died in Brooklyn two years previously; his brother, William, had his own problems to solve; Uncle William Swift was far away in Boston where he had become the head of the thriving Boston and Albany Railroad. His mother could only worry over him, pray for him, upbraid him. His stepbrother George wanted him to return to Baltimore where the patient Winans family would again place him in the shops. Where to turn was the question that kept hammering at the soul of James as he ran his fingers through his hair in honest bewilderment.
At this time in France there was a new life springing up in the garrets of Paris. The Revolutionary political spirit of 1848 p231 which had upset the continent of Europe existed also in the minds of a group of men who called themselves artists and bohemians. Led by one Henry Murger, whose book on the Scenes of the Bohemian Life urged revolutionary spirits in the artistic world to throw aside the shackles, artists came to live and work and play.
Manet and Courbet were living in the Latin Quarter of Paris, making it the art center of the world. Here young men could follow art as life and not as a profession; here they could live their lives setting up their own conventions; here they could talk to their heart's content as they slowly sipped an aperitif and argued in the manner that brought soulful gestures and the emotional life. Murger's description of life in the Latin Quarter in Paris was an enticing one with art remaining a faith as well as a profession. Obstinate dreamers were called to the one city in the world where art lived and where the followers could give courageous obedience to its liberal laws.
For one of Whistler's stamp, life where he could be a spendthrift and cheerful, caring not whether he worked or played, was the be‑all of existence. It would seem like heaven when compared to his previous life, for in bohemian Paris he could have his friendships with eccentrics, his intimacies with models, and his companionship with men of worthy natures who burned with the devotion to art.
With this dream in his head, Washington life lost its aura, and by February 1855, James Whistler was ready for Paris. He went home to Stonington first, and the family council allowed him the freedom of his decision. In addition to their good wishes went a ticket to Europe and three hundred and fifty dollars a year so long as he should need it.
James was now twenty‑one — just voting age — and he was cut loose in the city of Paris. Mistakes of morality, mistakes of judgment in art, in friendship, and in art schooling were to be his lot. His family knew little of his doings, so he was left to work out his own salvation, in the spiritual and material p232 sense, in the bohemian atmosphere of the Latin Quarter. With money in his pocket, a white duck suit on his person, and a broad-brimmed hat on his head to hold his hair in the right place, James was a slightly tragi-comic figure in his new world.
Knowing little of Paris except what he had read in Murger's Scenes of the Bohemian Life, he valiantly strode to the Hotel Corneille, where the new life opened quickly to him. The resident art and medical students ate together in a central dining room. There it was that Whistler first met Lamont and Du Maurier. Du Maurier was a tall, attractive man with slender figure who found his physically slighter counterpart in the square-shouldered, straight American, Whistler. The author and painter's eye for the picturesque was caught by the sight of Whistler in his long black curls, his broad-brimmed hat and foppish clothes.
Both of these young men studied "under Gleyre, pupil of Ingres and inheritor of the classic tradition." Perhaps it was well that Whistler seldom went to his classes, for Gleyre was said to have taught all that was "unimportant in the method of Ingres." At any rate Whistler carried away one axiom of Gleyre, "that black was the basis of tone," and this one unforgettable teaching made Whistler's study under Gleyre important.
Whistler soon tired of the life of his English companions, of whom Lamont and Du Maurier seemed the most important. When they set up housekeeping in Paris, Whistler went his own way to live with a French bank clerk. He had an aversion to the life of the English group who demanded sport mixed with their art. In Du Maurier's novel, Trilby, written forty years later, was listed the equipment with which the English group was able to rid itself of Whistler. There was a trapeze, fencing foils and masks, and boxing gloves. The occupants of the strange studio spent their allotted time swinging Indian clubs, boxing, and engaging in collegiate horseplay in the late afternoon before dinner.
Whistler himself believed in the strenuous life, but no one p233 had ever accused him of being a lover of sport. His café night-life, and his awe‑inspiring ability to work at his art when he worked, left little time for horseplay and for the advance and retreat of the fencing group.
In Trilby, Du Maurier said that they hobnobbed with male and female models, with law and medicine students, and with painters, sculptors, and grisettes to the improvement of their French. Du Maurier first included Whistler as Joe Sibley, a role distasteful to the artist, and due to his protests dropped Sibley in the change from magazine serial to novel.
James Laver, taking the Sibley passages from Harper's, said truly that Du Maurier's penetration was that "given to those who have been friends and are so no longer." The book introduced Joe Sibley as "the idle apprentice, the King of Bohemia, le roi des truands, to whom everything was forgiven, as to François Villon, 'à cause de ses gentillesses.' "
Despite the money from home, the impressionable, vain, and fun‑loving Whistler was always in debt. As Joe Sibley he was in the identical fix, and like "Svengali, vain, witty, and a most exquisite and original artist; and also eccentric in his attire (though clean), so that people would stare at him as he walked along — which he adored! But unlike Svengali, he was genial, caressing, sympathetic, charming; the most irresistible friend in the world as long as the friendship lasted — but that was not forever."
As lawsuit after lawsuit attested, Whistler was a strong enemy as soon as friendship was broken! Du Maurier continued: "Sometimes this enmity would take the simple and straightforward form of trying to punch his ex‑friend's head; and when the ex‑friend was too big, he would get some new friend to help him. And much bad blood would be caused in this way — though very little was spilt. And all was not made better by the funny things he went on saying through life about the unlucky one who had managed to offend him — things that stuck forever.
"He is now perched on such a topping miracle (of fame p234 and notoriety combined) that people can stare at him from two hemispheres at once; and so famous as a wit that when he jokes (and he is always joking) people laugh first, then ask what it was he was joking about." Such was the Whistler of the early days in Paris. Perhaps the picture is somewhat overdrawn because Du Maurier suffered much at the hands of Whistler in the intervening days before the publication of the novel.
Though the English group could never erase the picture of Whistler as the idle apprentice, it is significant to note that he accomplished much in his allotted time. True he was out late at the numerous balls of the Latin Quarter, and sought companionship among the sex that gave more emotion to life while complementing the femininity of his own nature.
As a cosmopolitan, Whistler sought a grisette of the romantic strain of the mid‑nineteenth century. Thomas Armstrong, one of the English group of friends, knew her well also. After his evening gymnastic work, he often went with Whistler to some café with the grisette, named Eloise, but called by James, Fumette. There he recorded the song she often sang. As quoted in his memoirs, it ran, according to a translation by Laver, as follows:1
Would you know, yes, know
How artists love? They invoke
Love with such utter artistry,
They are such artistic folk.
That they go off saying:
"Won't you come to my place, Mademoiselle?
I'll do your portrait."
Bring back your sheep, shepherdess,
Bring back your sheep from the fields.
p235 Whistler made her portrait. He etched her with insight and some penetration, showing her sad little face with its charm and earnestness, enshrouded with untidy hair. On occasion she could work that same sad face into a fierceness that earned for her the name of la Tigresse, in the Latin Quarter. Whistler himself had occasion to meet this same strain in her when he returned to their lodgings one day to find that she had torn up all his drawings. After breaking down and crying, the artist recovered sufficiently to go off to a restaurant with some friends to drown his sorrows. Lack of funds failed to dampen the party and after a challenge of a duel to an American named Lucas who refused to pay for such wet sorrow, Whistler's companions fell asleep only to awaken to the dream of Americans who were willing to pay the bills for the witty and gay compatriot.
A dancer of the cancan was Whistler's next female companion and with a delightful sense of the onomatopoetic, he named her Finette. Her sophistication was a pleasing contrast to the little Fumette. She danced well, and eventually she was offered and accepted the opportunity to leave the uncertain life of the Latin Quarter for a London stage contract.
But all of Whistler's life was not a succession of companions, lived in the shelter of tobacco smoke and the tawdry atmosphere of cafés. In the summer of 1858, he went with Ernest Delannoy to visit the home of a friend in the Gleyre classes, who lived in Alsace. With his fellow bohemian, Whistler set out, still the comic opera figuring in his broad-brimmed straw hat with the flashing ribbons, the thin pumps that were not built for hiking, and the knapsack full of copper plates. They trudged on, spending the money previously earned by copying pictures in the Louvre. They paid freely for tours through the many diverse provinces of the Rhineland. There were boat trips, and stops at villages which promised portraits. Their capital soon gave out, but Whistler was never one to worry about that lack. His first thought was of friends or Americans in the places he visited. At Aachen, the American consul, after hearing a convincing talk amount of p236 money they were to earn from their etchings, finally gave up fifty francs.
Though the distance from Aachen to Cologne is •fifty miles, the American consul's largesse seems to have disappeared quickly, possibly for a dinner, wine and recreation. Some stories credit the two travelers with having spent months covering this distance and this may fit in with the artist's later story that they joined a troupe of traveling musicians and that he played the bass drum at country fairs. It is a pleasant picture to contemplate but a little surprising that some enterprising show manager did not look upon the picturesque artist and recruit him for the clown of the troupe. For further expense money the weary artists placed their copper etchings in pawn. Their arrival in Paris was the signal for a celebration and no one present felt more than did Whistler that they had satisfied the romantic urge of the Latin Quarter in a thoroughly satisfactory manner.
Whistler immediately retrieved the copper plates and set about looking for the best printer in the etching business, one Auguste Delâtre. The friends of Whistler, notably Fantin and Legros were very much impressed by the publication of his etchings in November, 1858. They now believed that this American was growing up in art, living not only for pleasure and for joy but also working, just as had his father, when he set his mind to it.
Again Jimmie turned to his mother and to his brother-in‑law, Deborah's husband, Seymour Haden, to sell the "set of etching views of France and Germany." Twelve single sheets were offered to fifty subscribers willing to pay two guineas each for them. They could be bound as "a drawing room album, or framed as separate pictures." Haden, a successful doctor with artistic leanings, rubbed his hands with satisfaction and pronounced them "of rare beauty." Such praise brought him twenty-five of the fifty albums to sell, while Anna Whistler at home in America was to do likewise.
Dr. Haden had gone to Paris, where he felt that he should p237 do something to change the moral outlook of young Whistler. His praise of the artist's etchings and his sincere attempt to help him in a monetary way were the meat and drink that brought James from Paris to the banks of the Thames. The brothers-in‑law bent over their etchings in the winter of 1858‑59, making the identical sketch of their believed Deborah. With a lamp throwing its rays over her profile as she bent to her book, the two etchers competed for favor. Haden's work showed the directness of the doctor, with his sharper, cleaner ability with the etching tool; Whistler, finding the shadow, searched for an "arrangement."
Life with Debo and her husband was pleasant to a certain extent, though its very extravagance became boring to him. The Hadens had the perception to see that the romanticism of England was hard and unyielding compared to the gay, emotional full-tilt romanticism of the Latin Quarter. Seymour Haden dispatched a quick note to Fantin, one of Whistler's closet Latin Quarter friends, cordially inviting him to Sloane Street. To the note, Whistler added a postscript of directions. Fantin, though not accustomed to the champagne diet and luxurious surroundings, carried a dress suit and the manners for that life. Ernest Delannoy came too, but his shuffling feet were clad in slippers to disprove to the awesome servants that he did not have suitable shoes.
From England there were frequent trips to France where Whistler soon fell in with the school of realists whom Courbet headed at this time. This man of the earth, who was known as a revolutionary both in art and politics, had many enemies by the time Whistler was emerging from the art student class. Realism was at that time a revolt against the classicism of Ingres and his pupil Gleyre, and also against the romanticism of Delacroix. The realism of Courbet was one not so much of truth in local color that destroys the relation of space but a proclamation of the dignity of modern life and an "acceptance of life as it is, of men in long trousers and tall hats." This realism denied the easy escape to an imagined world which p238 ends in "a shriveling of the imagination, and the mere accumulation of bric-a‑brac."
Whistler's desire was to meet this master, not that he was willing to follow his political beliefs that eventually led to the Commune of Paris in 1871, but to find out his method of design, to chase down the delusion that was realism. Fantin arranged a meeting with the master, and all that Whistler could breathe after meeting him was, "He's a great man! He's a great man!" The friendship of the master for young artists who paid him homage caused him to come into the studio of Bonvin to give Fantin and Whistler his unofficial criticism. Reaching out under the influence of Courbet, Whistler himself found some realism in his painting of an old flower seller, and of a vendor of chamber pots. This was the extent of Whistler's realism and soon he was following Fantin in the newer school of Lecoq de Boisbaudran. His doctrine or system was merely one of cultivating the memory and then drawing and painting from it, thereby eliminating unnecessary detail. Whistler himself never agreed that he was a member of the impressionist school, admitting though that he was an impressionist insofar as it "implies, first of all, impatience in detail."
Whistler, after making etchings of the Haden family, began to paint them in the 1859's.º He decided to paint his half-sister Debo and her daughter Anna together in an arrangement called "At the Piano." This was his first great advance into the painting world and here he threw off the slavish copying of the Courbet method. The tones were beautifully put together in this piece, for Debo was in black, and her daughter in white, both set against a gray background. There was a red carpet underneath, and the whole scene was sprinkled with the dust-touching rays of the sun. This work was refused by the Salon in Paris in 1859 but was "accepted" at a private showing by Bonvin, where Whistler's painting hung alongside several by Fantin, and Legros, all of whom knew they were blackballed from the Salon for their friendship with Courbet. Seeking further recognition in a more favorable atmosphere, Whistler presented p239 his painting in London, where the Royal Academy accepted it in 1860. Whistler had reached the first stage of his artistic journey. He was then, Du Maurier and others pointed out, a charming young friend, and a virulent enemy but withal had little of the biting sarcasm, the false wit, and eccentricity of his later life. Those were part of his arrangement and came with his development in art. The struggling youngster of 26 had reached the heights but the fall was soon to come. When it arrived, Whistler either developed some of his less-liked characteristics or else allowed them to come plunging out when his ire was let loose against those who stood in the way of his becoming the premier artist in Europe.
During the 1860's Whistler was fluttering about Europe, in England, in France, in Spain, and finally back to London. He worked hard; he played just as hard. Again his desire for female companionship awakened, and Whistler, moving out of the influence of the Hadens took to himself, model, mistress, and traveling companion, one Joanna Heffernan. Next Whistler spent long hours doing etchings of the lower Thames. Various patrons came to his aid, and his companions from Paris appeared at intervals. Men like Legros the artist, and Delâtre, the printer of etchings, surveyed his work and helped him on art's upward path.
Legros had come under the ban of the Salon in 1859 and had studied with Whistler and Fantin under Bonvin. They became known as the "Society of Three," and from their congenial letters and their good times together Elizabeth Pennell pictured in print Whistler: the Friend. This attempt at bringing to light his virtue of kindness to friends was the antithesis of the The Gentle Art of Making Enemies. Chesterton, though, in his ironic way, suggested that such ability to make friends with two other artists who mutually aided one another was not worthy of note. He said: "Kindness to tried friends . . . is a quality of all sane men, of pirates and pickpockets." At this time too, Whistler was not so difficult to get along with. He had had some reverses but his fortunes were running on p240 the upgrade; his paintings and etchings were being recognized; he was young enough to paint long hours, and to play violently equally long hours.
In one letter of the early sixties Whistler mentioned "his efforts to paint the Thames from a first-floor balcony with figures in the foreground." Besides a boat‑man and Legros, there was a girl, the painting of whose head gave him a great deal of difficulty. With his heart on his sleeve he did the girl's head three times in his never-ending desire for perfection, but then was afraid of continuing for fear that he would lose the freshness. Whistler breathed his feelings: "Ah! But let me describe the head to you: It has the loveliest hair you have ever seen! A coppered, not a gilded, red — a perfect Venetian dream! a skin whitish yellow, or gilded if you prefer." Thus spoke the swarthy-complexioned young artist with the unguided fondness for redheads. Jo's father, a bohemian Irishman, took the situation in stride with talk of "me son-in‑law." Well he might, for Whistler lived with her for ten years even though he jocularly referred to her son during that period as "an infidelity to Jo."
But rather than put too much emphasis on Jo, it is well to know something of other after-work hours of Whistler. He was a gay companion who could sing with the best. Somewhere he had picked up many of the Southern Negro spirituals, and before they were famous in his native land was singing them in London. After his friend Du Maurier sang Parisian ballads in the native tongue, Whistler would strut into "Swing low, sweet chariot, Comin' for to carry me home."
The leap from such pleasure to his painting was an easy one for Whistler. Work was one of his strong points. Upon seeing Jo moving about the house in a white dress, he conceived the idea of painting her all in white, placing everything about her in white also. He removed the furniture from one end of the studio. White cloth was hung as a backdrop. Under Jo's feet was a rug of near-white. As he poured his being into this painting of Jo, he rubbed out, removed with turpentine, and started p241 over again many times. While working he had no patience with his model. She was something mechanical to do his bidding. Jo spent hours upon hours standing for Whistler until her strength began to ebb. But he would continue, a stroke here, another stroke there, and then the removal. He was taut, brusquely moving here and there, never satisfied, as he mixed his paints. Perhaps he poisoned himself with the white lead used in his work. When the painting was completed after the long hard winter of effort, Whistler without a word of farewell, fled to the south of France. The counsel of Fantin, the long hours spent in the evenings talking over their precious art, and the plans of the morrow — even these could not hold him. He wrote to Fantin urging him to join in the pilgrimage to the south, but the friend knew that it would be an intrusion into the private life of the American artist. His refusal brought fervid promises of accounts of all the paintings in the Prado. But Whistler and his traveling companion never reached Madrid, for her being revolted against the constant strain of moving about. She longed for a settled home and insisted upon the quieter life away from travel and the Paris Latin Quarter. Her feelings awakened some vague loneliness in Whistler and almost as he set foot in Spain he was willing to turn back for the tranquil existence which London held out.
In the artists' colony of Bloomsbury, Whistler, the impecunious artist and his woman, whom he however troubled to take to the altar, settled in a large studio. In the single room his empty pocketbook could engage he curtained off a bedroom with a brocade cloth that was "more of a symbol than a protection." The comfortless room with its threadbare appearance with nothing new to the artist, because his Paris home had always been a primitive arrangement. In London, Whistler was not always at the studio, and on occasion rented it to his friend Du Maurier. One novelist of the time, living in the same building, in describing the life of the room, spoke of the quiet singing of French songs by Du Maurier. When his "landlord" arrived, p242 there would be noise and laughter, "the lulls for comic anecdotes, and the outbursts that followed, the suggestions of capsized furniture and chases around the room . . ."
Yet it was the same artist who could move in good social circles, due not to his brother-in‑law Seymour Haden at this time, but to people who wished to say they knew an engaging, humorous artist. With all his wit, Whistler could also appear the gentleman, with his eye‑glass, and his black hair waving aristocratically in the soft light of evening. He moved to Lindsey Row early in 1863. There in Chelsea he was away from the influences of the city, and there he came to know intimately Dante Gabriel Rossetti, at whose home for a time lived such men as Swinburne and Meredith. Carlyle lived a few minutes' walk from Whistler's lodgings. Life was taking on a rosy glow again and the 28‑year‑old artist found that he was on good terms with the group.
During this period Whistler finished "The White Girl" for showing in the Academy but it was turned down. It was then hung in a new gallery on Berners Street where the crowd thought it was the illustration for Collins's novel, The Woman in White. Whistler in his tautness was quick to write to the newspapers to right this judgment. Next Whistler sent his painting to the Salon in Paris but it was refused along with the works of Fantin, Legros, Manet, and others. The Emperor Napoleon III seeing a wrong done, offered space in the same building for a Salon des Refusés. The Emperor's favor was sufficient to send every art lover in Paris to the latter salon where the artists received their just attention. To one it was "an evoked spirit; to another a vision." The discussion made him the most talked‑of painter in Paris. The critics' remarks were the lifeblood of the struggling young artist; recognition seemed to be his at last.
Fantin brought further renown to Whistler when he included him in a group of famous painters in a picture "Hommage à Delacroix," which he painted in 1863. "Whistler stands out p243 from the rest, not only by his good place, but by his extreme elegance and by the sprightliness of his attitude. Manet, Bracquemond, Legros look like painters and nothing else; Champfleury looks like an elder statesman, Baudelaire like an ecclesiastic, Whistler is the military officer in mufti, and so indeed he always remained," Laver concluded.
Whistler's enthusiasm for the work of Fantin was unbounded. He had faith in Fantin and he knew him well enough to be an honest critic. Then too, his friend had reserved for him the place of honor. The straight, slight figure had no touch of gray in his black hair, as he stod to one side with a flower offering in his hands. His hair looked as if he had just run his fingers though it. His posture was excellent and his black coat fitted well in the traditional manner of Whistler carefully dressing the part to focus attention upon himself.
When Fantin's painting was hung in the Salon it was given a poor place, poor light and at the time received none of the due praise which later critics have extended.
Whistler returned to London where he brazenly put up a canvas to rival that of Fantin. On its •ten feet by six, he would do a group of portraits. But he never got farther than the sketch.
Mrs. Anna McNeill Whistler was coming to town. The news threw Whistler into a frenzy. His mother would never understand the untidy, monastic Legros, and new quarters must be found at once. Jo was forced to get out. James cleaned the place from top to bottom, throwing out the disarray which was a concomitant of his art and putting in the homey touches of English life. Subsequently she arrived and in her extravagant way enthused over its view of the Thames (The Whistler also lived overlooking the water), its evergreens in the courtyard at the rear, its commodious rooms, and the hospitality of the neighbors.
Whistler was now in the earliest stages of his Japanese passion, and was assiduously engaged in transplanting "the spirit of Hokusai" to Chelsea. Mrs. Whistler wrote home with pride, p244 reporting that, "This artistic abode of my son is ornamented by a very rare collection of Japanese and Chinese. He considers the paintings upon them the finest specimens of art, and his companions (artists) who resort here for an evening's relaxation occasionally, get enthusiastic as they handle and examine the curious figures portrayed . . . You will not wonder that Jimmie's inspirations should be of the same cast."
She watched him put up his easel in the drawing room and paint while under the Eastern influence. His "Lange Leizen of the Six Marks," Mrs. Whistler described as a girl seated in a quiet and easy attitude as if intent on painting a beautiful jar. Several pieces of china and a fan are arranged on a shelf as if for the selection of purchasers. There is even the shadow of the handle of the fan. His mother said, "His conceptions are so nice and for that reason he cannot paint rapidly." The art critics stated that of Whistler's Japanese-dominated set of pictures done between 1864 and 1870 that the "Lange Leizen" was the least satisfactory. It was "cluttered with Japanese accessories," yet possessed little of the Japanese spirit.
Whistler's use of silhouette and "curious perspective" showed the influence of the Orient — an influence that threatened to submerge his art. Perhaps in assimilating the art of Japan, Whistler was its apostle. In his particular desire to be the center of the stage he was perhaps carried away by art forms unnatural to him. It was a fad which nearly became an established part of Whistlerian art.
In Chelsea, James became known as "the Japanese artist" and his enthusiasm caught on with such men as the Greaves and even the two Rossettis, Dante and his brother William, who were collecting Oriental objets d'art. Fantin shared the craze for Japanese painting and suggested the painting of another group picture similar to his "Hommage à Delacroix." Whistler in his desire again to be the center of attraction with a Japanese robe about him, insisted that "Pense à la robe à faire, et donne‑la moi." At first Fantin thought of his painting as a blend of the allegorical and the actual, with a nude female figure reposing in front of men in black coats and silk hats. p245 Whistler of course would be in his beautiful Oriental robe. At the Salon exhibition, the public laughed the picture out of existence because of the combination of the unashamed nudity and the men dressed in the latest and most decorous fashion. The picture, called "L'Hommage à la Vérité," quickly lost its nude, and then became "Le Toast" with Manet and Whistler facing one another. Fantin cut it up because of his dislike of the painting, preserving only the three heads, Whistler, Villon and himself. Whistler exhibited patience in posing for the picture as long as he held the center of the canvas, and as long as he could be set off from his fellow mortals by the gaudy Oriental dress. But Whistler had held the center of Fantin's stage for the last time. Their art and their views were becoming too divergent.
The 1860's had not been merely life with Jo Heffernan, and the coming of his mother to live in London; nor had it been only the influence of Courbet and of the Japanese school of Hokusai on his art. For all these mixed influences plus such family matters as the break with Debo's husband, Seymour Haden, and the throwing aside of Fantin, made the sixties the crucial period of Whistler's life. Surrounded by varied influences in both London and Paris, he set his art and his character into a mold that shaped his future life.
Influences which lay hidden in the nature of his family, in the Russian environment, and in the contrasting hard life in America after the death of his father, naturally had much to do with shaping Whistler's personality. Albert Parry has summed up these influences in a hard-headed, reasonable and logical way as he explained the son, Jimmie, as he grew up. "He was an individualist rebelling against his mother's unbearable sabbatarianism and discipline." His revolt was "on the whole early and successful" so that James bore her no grudge. From Anna Whistler, though, he inherited "a feeling of superiority — not in her strait-laced manner, of course, but in a loosely ribald way all his own.
"It was far from Major Whistler's rugged democratic intent to have his son grow up a snob." He sensed the danger and p246 showed some inclination to leave Russia, upon completion of his railroad. In a conscious way, Jimmie admired his father, not only for his distinguished position in Russia but because he was a real man. Also he could draw, play the flute and even descend to horseplay as in the case when Debo was about to be married to Seymour Haden in London. Jim and the Major had arrived home late to find the doors locked and a light on in Anna's room. Boyishly they threw gravel at her window, and both in a loving sort of way enjoyed as their combined right a laugh at her discomfiture. There was rancor in Jimmie's heart that his family should live on a pittance when he was at Pomfret and West Point while hangers‑on whom his father, the distinguished engineer, had tolerated and brought up from machinists's jobs to be profiteers in the railroading enterprises (which the elder Whistler had made possible by his brains and administrative ability) were living in luxury.
Calling himself a Southerner like his mother, and believing in the aristocracy of blood and mind, James clearly saw what he believed to be his father's greatest failing — the modesty which cloaked hard work, achievement, and ability. Jimmie resolved not to repeat his father's error, and at Pomfret and West Point when his father no longer could curb such impulses, he indulged in self-advertisement. "Like his father," said Albert Parry, "James Whistler was not an originator but a skillful collector and fuser of various discoveries and sundry tendencies. Unlike his father, he proclaimed himself a genius. As much as his father hid his light, the son would strut to the front."
There is the picture of James McNeill Whistler "as an early George Bernard Shaw: tremendous conceit rooted in shrewdness, blossoming forth in self-conscious and self-advertising eccentricity. He wanted to be classed with the classics, to be esteemed every bit as highly as the old masters, but he was not sure that an order of fame as large as that would come his way. That was why mainly he resorted to the cheap trickery of epigrams p247 and monkeyshines at the expense of other people. He knew that his talent was considerable, but to be on the good side of unborn posterity he thought he had to be deft with tongue no less than with his brush. In his time, biting epigrams had a high market value. He was of the mistaken notion that it would ever be so." Thus wrote Albert Parry.
Halfway through the 1860's, Whistler in his less than thirty years of life had found it good. Success was his. He was working hard; playing just as hard; he was meeting the famous in England and on the continent. He had cause to be happy; to feel that his wit had confidence behind it. His worst qualities were those of the exhibitionist; his best, perhaps, were the honesty and integrity he displayed in his work. His abstract love of good work was such, according to Professor Walter Raleigh, that "he would destroy any of his works rather than leave a careless or inexpressive touch within the limits of his frame. He would begin again a hundred times over rather than attempt by patching to make his work seem better than it was."
In 1865 Jo Heffernan was the model for another "White Girl," this painting carrying the prefix, "Little." The picture was Japanese from the blossom spray to the fan in Jo's hand and the porcelain on the mantelpiece. Above and beyond that there was a tenderness that seemed odd to the hard, brittle character of Whistler. Possibly some of the normal emotion of a father and common‑law husband crept into the frame.
Whistler, with pleasure, noted the poem by Swinburne to his "Little White Girl" and pasted it on its frame:2
Come snow, come wind or thunder
High up in air,
I watch my face, and wonder
At my bright hair;
Nought else exalts or grieves
The rose at heart, that heaves
With love of its own leaves and lips that pair.
p248 She knows not loves that kissed her
She knows not where.
Art thou the ghost, my sister,
White sister there,
Am I the ghost, who knows?
My hand, a fallen rose,
Lies snow-white on white snows, and takes no care.
I cannot see what pleasures
Or what pains were;
What pale new loves and treasures
New years will bear;
What beam will fall, what shower,
What grief joy for dower;
But one thing knows the flower; the flower is fair.
But bad fortune now played its hand in Whistler's life. Though the "Little White Girl" painting was shown at the Royal Academy in 1865, the critics dealt with the picture in their most acidulous, fault-finding manner. They thought it strange, and bizarre, and their unanimity about its lack of good qualities was a blow to the artist. He turned to France but the rebuff to that country in Whistler's shift in his art and residence was sufficient excuse to deal unkindly with his painting. Turned out by the continent and the country of his adoption, Whistler became bitter. Self-analysis brought him to the recrimination that an exiled "Southerner" had not lived up to the Confederacy in the American Civil War. This is a long stretch of the imagination but one quite ordinary when dealing with the painter, Whistler.
More and more, Southern refugees were coming to live in London, notably James's brother, William, who had served as a surgeon on the battlefields of the Civil War. James Whistler had claimed to be "an officer and a gentleman" through all his life in exile. Again and again his battles with friends and enemies took on the character of contests over his honor as a p249 gentleman, rather than as an artist. At various times, Whistler had claimed to be a Southerner, and quite possibly some of his acquaintances who had often heard him boast of the strength of the South during the war years, thought to ask him why he, if he felt so strongly, had not gone to its aid. His sense of pride and his honor were undoubtedly touched. No longer could this man who preached "the impersonality of art so personally" claim exemption from his duties as an American gentleman.
Early in 1866, Whistler left Lindsey Row in London for a fantastic expedition to Valparaiso, Chile. On the face of it, there was the appearance of mere whim, but the incredibly haphazard Whistler had carefully drawn a will before he left, leaving everything to Joanna Hiffernan (as he spelled the name). No hint of the reason for this amazing episode in the life of a busy painter was contained in the letters to Legros and Fantin in the "Society of Three." His brother, Dr. William Whistler, probably took the key to this mystery with him upon his death.
At any rate, a handful of adventurers (though Whistler cannot be included under that term) set out from Southampton to free the Chileans from the Spanish yoke. The party arrived in Valparaiso in time for the Spanish bombardment, too late to achieve anything for the Chileans. In the farce Whistler told later of his amusing part in the shelling of the town by the none-too‑accurate gunboats. With a group of companions, he galloped out of town on horseback, easily leading the pell-mell retreat because, as he says, of his acquired riding ability at West Point. During the expedition, five nocturnes were painted, one of Valparaiso harbor at night catching particular attention.
Whistler's spirit was crushed as he returned to sanity. He wanted to walk down Lindsey Row, see the Thames again. His good nature was wallowing in irritation at the slow trip home. Whistler took offense at the airs of a Haitian negro on the voyage and after expending some of his irritation, was p250 confined to his cabin by the ship's captain until port was reached. As usual Whistler tried to make a laughable episode of the affair with the Negro but Dante Rossetti expressed his views of the situation in strong language. James was home with his mother by the end of 1866. He could glean nothing from her son about his adventures on the journey, and William Rossetti commented on the lack of information, putting down in his mind that the insane aspects of the venture were too much for even Whistler's love of a joke.
The artist's bitterness then acquired physical aspects. While in Paris for the Exhibition of 1867, he took boxing lessons to back up his pugnacity. Like a broken down prize fighter, he first used his new knowledge on a workman who chanced to drop some plaster on him. Whistler won easily and found himself haled before a magistrate, where he was released, possibly because of the good auspicesº of the American minister. A few days later, Whistler's pent‑up emotion was vented on his brother-in‑law, Seymour Haden, whom he quite handily put through a plate-glass window with a one‑two punch. The same magistrate looked down his long nose and dryly fined Whistler on this occasion. Haden, in anger, was able to obtain the expulsion of Whistler from the Burlington Fine Arts Club in London. Only the two Rossettis considered Whistler badly used and sent in their own resignations. The final little pugilistic affair was with Legros, who got a violent blow in the face from the long-armed, strong-shouldered gentleman-artist.
A change was necessary and Whistler plunged into a removal to Number 2 Lindsey Row, where he indulged his Japanese artistry in superb decoration. He cleared the room of unnecessary furnishings in revolt against the over-crowded Victorian salons; he threw out the pseudo-antiques, the art objects, and went in for simplicity. Next, in traditional unrest, he turned over the apartment to his mother and moved to a studio nearer to the city than Chelsea. Painting again occupied his time. Albert Moore became his confidant and aided him by hero p251 worship in his painting of seductive nudes. Little wonder therefore that Whistler called upon Fantin to take Moore into the "Society of Three." Fantin, now a recluse in Paris, cared little for Whistler's ideas, and their correspondence was diminished by indifference and distance.
Whistler had by this time broken away from all other art influences to make his own style. He called his paintings "Arrangements, Nocturnes, Symphonies, and Harmonies" — all musical terms which appealed to his unmusical comprehension, but which he believed would exercise a power over others of slight or no musical knowledge.
Chesterton, in an incisive characterization, said of Whistler that "he was one of those people who live up to their emotional incomes, who are always taut and tingling with vanity. Hence he had no strength to spare; hence he had no kindness, no geniality; for geniality is almost definable as strength to spare. He had no god‑like carelessness; he never forgot himself; his whole life was, to use his own expression, an arrangement. He went in for 'the art of living' — a miserable trick. In a word, he was a great artist; but emphatically not a great man."
One critic who misinterpreted Whistler's designation of a painting as a "Symphony," called forth the sarcastic retort: "Bon Dieu! did this wise person expect white hair and chalked faces? And does he then, in his astounding consequence, believe that a symphony in F contains no other note, but shall be a continued repetition of F F F? . . . Fool."
Though Whistler was admittedly a poor draftsman, he concentrated his attention during this period at flattening his figures so that they would not "conflict with the flat-painted scenery." In painting "The Music Room, "Mother" and "Carlyle" he aimed at this idea, in addition "progressively simplifying the background." Color, too, was of tremendous importance to him and often he spent days mixing his colors, and other days in arranging them in exquisite taste, using as a base the Gleyre advice of black as background. After posing the model, and "deciding on the elements of the projected 'harmony,' the p252 figure was then lightly brushed in." Whistler was never satisfied by the painting he made on the next few sittings and his pictorial integrity demanded that he should spend fifty or a hundred more sittings to complete the portrait. Though he commenced hundreds of portraits, he finished only a dozen. They have been worth the effort!
The last years of life for Whistler were passed most assiduously in cultivating further the Gentle Art of Making Enemies. The affair with Leyland, the Ruskin-Whistler court case, and the removal of Whistler from the presidency of the Royal Society were all part of this period. Each episode is of book-length proportions. Jo Heffernan had passed from Whistler's company, and Maud Franklin, a "fine lady" in comparison, was lodged in the sophisticated air that engulfed the artist.
Whistler had always been a lover of fine things. During the 'seventies, he painted well, spending what he collected for good food and wine, served on old glass and rare china. His hospitality in the manner of his inscription to the Gentle Art of Making Enemies, was "to a few." The book was addressed: "To the rare Few, who, early in Life, have rid Themselves of the Friendship of the Many, these pathetic Papers are inscribed." "When his funds were low he would purchase the cheapest drinkable Graves, affix an impressive seal of colored wax to the cork, and make believe to bring up the bottle from the cellar with reverent hands."
Menpes says that Whistler was late for every engagement, even those in which he invited friends to his own apartment. "He would still be in bed or singing in his bath when the guests arrived. Often when the guests were seated, he would run into the kitchen to prepare some delicacy. Though he was an excellent cook, he was too fussy, and would sometimes allow the dish to grow cold while he prepared an unnecessarily elaborate sauce."
Whistler's love of a joke was carried out with the consummate skill of the born actor. In Piccadilly one day he met an American artist, Alden Weir, the son of old Professor Weir of p253 West Point. Whistler invited him to dine at his club and Weir consented. Whistler called a hansom and when they arrived at his first club, got out, asking Weir to remain in the cab. He returned in a moment to explain that it was impossible to dine at that club, as they had mutton on the menu. At the next stop, Whistler repeated his movements, this time excusing them with the remark that there was a person in the club who was distasteful to Whistler. After covering the list of clubs, Whistler with many apologies suggested that Weir should dine with him in Chelsea. After so many false starts, Weir would gladly have eaten at the poorhouse. Upon arrival at the Whistler abode, they found that a large party of guests had been awaiting their host for two hours. Weir then had a further wait while Whistler, the only other person not in evening dress, changed his clothes.
In the Leyland affair, which began in 1867 and in which the friendship and art work extended during the following decade, Whistler became a great friend and at times a permanent guest of the self-made merchant prince. Mrs. Whistler came down to stay, and the intimate relations of the families continued for some time. Whistler meant to do many portraits for the family but completed only the portrait of Leyland himself. Upon this, Whistler spent long hours, seemingly never quite finishing the legs of the merchant.
James McNeill Whistler in his eccentric way went half‑mad over the prospects of doing the house over for the Leylands. He painted the dining hall as the Peacock Room, doing the painting on leather that had cost the head of the house one thousand pounds. The entire mansion became a sort of picture gallery and salon for Whistler's friends, and due to his desire for publicity and his ability to corral it, he irked the owner considerably. Finally when the matter came to a showdown, and Whistler demanded two thousand guineas — a figure thought excessive by even Rossetti, Leyland offered one thousand pounds. Whereupon, Whistler painted two enormous peacocks on the wall which the head of the table faced as he sat p254 down, and under the claw of one of the fowls, he painted a pile of coins. Leyland in good part did not change the painting but that was the end of his relationship with Whistler.
In the same year, 1877, which marked the end of the Leyland friendship, Whistler saw several of his paintings hung in the Grosvenor Gallery. These furnished material for bitter criticism and John Ruskin in a number of Fors Clavigera observed: "I have seen and heard much of cockney impudence before now; but never expected to hear a coxcomb ask 200 guineas for flinging a pot of paint in the public's face." At the conclusion of a libel suit brought by Whistler, which he nominally won, being awarded damages in amount of one farthing, Whistler retaliated with a pamphlet: "Whistler vs. Ruskin: Art and Art Critics."
At the trial in 1878 the principals, including the Attorney-General and the judge, evoked laughter from the crowded courtroom as they discussed painting objectively. Whistler, upon cross-examination by the Attorney-General, said, "The nocturne in black and gold is a night piece, and represents the fireworks at Cremorne."
When asked if it were not a view of Cremorne, the painter countered with, "If it were called a view of Cremorne, it would certainly bring about nothing but disappointment on the part of the beholders. It is artistic arrangement." The court-room rocked with laughter. Next Whistler was asked how long it took him "to knock off that nocturne," and upon questioning the meaning of the Attorney-General, that gentleman added: "I should have said, how long did it take you to paint that picture?"
Whistler then with mock politeness said: "Oh no! permit me, I am too greatly flattered to think that you apply, to work of mine, any term that you are in the habit of using with reference to your own. Let us same then how long did I take to — 'Knock off,' I think that is it — to knock off that nocturne; well, as well as I remember, about a day . . . I had better say then, that I was two days at work on it."
p255 "Oh, two days! The labor of two days, then, is that for which you ask two hundred guineas!" The lawyer was pressing the case.
"No; I ask it for the knowledge of a lifetime." (Applause)
The Attorney-General, hoping to win his case for Mr. Ruskin, asked: . . . "Do you think now that you could make me see the beauty of that picture?"
The witness then paused, and attentively examining the Attorney-General's face and alternately looking at the picture said, after apparently giving the subject much thought, while the Court waited in silence for his answer: "No! Do you know I fear it would be as hopeless as for the musician to pour his notes into the ear of a deaf man." (Laughter)
After the trial, Whistler found himself the butt of London ridicule. Bankruptcy followed; and then a trip to Venice to do some etchings. Upon his return to London, the etchings when printed brought in some money. A few followers came to praise, among them E. W. Godwin, and Mortimer Menpes. They gathered others about them and in time Whistler gained sufficiently in strength to win the Presidency of the Royal Society of British Artists — a position which he held from 1886 to 1889.
Bitterness was still one of his traits and Whistler never failed to answer the art critics who took such pot shots at him as: "His colour is subversive. There may be a few who find Genius in insanity. He must not attempt to palm off his deficiencies upon us as manifestations of power. Whistler is eminently vulgar."
Whistler's ability to strike back effectively was well illustrated by the Ruskin case, and by the Symphony in F controversy, which Whistler ended with "Fool." Evidently compensation had come home to roost with Whistler — he was doomed to live out his life among the English, who were ever ready to handle him with kid gloves which contained brass knuckles.
Wherever Whistler is followed in his last twenty years of life, there is that ability to work hard when money was needed, p256 or when he felt that he must regain his reputation. The tautness which expressed itself in a deliberate unpunctuality, and in a devil-may‑care attitude often went to such extremes that Whistler lost new‑found friends who might have helped him.
Friends whom Whistler liked were invariably only visiting in London and subsequently the artist was forced to seek companionship among his enemies. Mark Twain was one American whom Whistler got along with. One day, the humorist invaded the Whistler studio and with a posed air of ignorance approached a nearly finished painting. After appraising it for a minute, he made a motion as if to rub the paint, and said: "I'd do away with that cloud."
Whistler jumped over to the side of Twain, exclaiming, "Gad, Sir. Do be careful there! Don't you see the paint is not yet dry?"
Twain's rejoinder was, "Oh, don't mind that. I'm wearing gloves, you see."
When the well-known American gambler, Richard A. Canfield, had his portrait done by Whistler, the latter noting his suavity dubbed it His Reverence. They laughed and talked together after this ironical quip, and Canfield later observed, "I know that James McNeill Whistler was one of the intensest Americans who ever lived." The gambler continued: "He was not what you would call an enthusiastic man, but when he reverted to the old days at the Military Academy, his enthusiasm was infectious. I think he was really prouder of the years he spent there — three I think they were — than any other years of his life, and he often said to me that the American army officer trained at West Point was the finest specimen of manhood and honor in the world."
In 1888, when James McNeill was 54, the urge to rid himself of Maud Franklin, who had been living with him for several years, brought him close to the wife of the sculptor, E. W. Godwin. She was an attractive woman, and one who understood the easy morals of artists' lives. Fortunately, she was of the French type and some biographers saw in her the aversion p257 to things English which lurked near the surface of Whistler's heart. Beatrice Godwin, sometime after her husband's death, was willing to marry Whistler, but only with a church ceremony.
A Mr. Labouchere in Truth several years later reported that he had dined with Whistler and Mrs. Godwin one evening, and seeing that they were both thorough-going bohemians who were obviously attracted to one another, took matters into his own hands. He addressed each in turn asking if marriage would be acceptable. Upon their affirmation, he asked them to set a date, but they gave him that pleasure. The day before the marriage, which he had arranged with the chaplain of the House of Commons at St. Mary Abbott's, Kensington, he met Mrs. Godwin who exclaimed that she was buying her trousseau. To Labouchere's question, she answered breezily, "I am going to buy a tooth brush and a new sponge, as one ought to have new ones when one marries."
After the ceremony, the wedding party adjourned to Whistler's studio, where he had prepared a banquet. The group sat on packing cases, as there were no chairs, and ate the wedding supper. Afterwards the Whistlers could not decide whether they would go to Paris that evening or remain in the studio.
The Paris edition of the New York Herald one day in 1889 featured a column entitled, "Whacking Whistler." For once Whistler was not inclined to give way to an American army officer, for in an interview with a reporter he "jumped in most emphatic manner upon General Rush Hawkins, Commissioner of the American Art Department at the Exhibition." Whistler objected to the General for being a cavalry officer; referred to him sarcastically as "Hawkins" and declared him ignorant of the most elementary principles alike of art and politeness — all because he had been "requested by the Commissioner to remove from the Exhibition premises some ten of his rejected etchings." In the ensuing debate the military commissioner asked no odds in the linguistic gymnastics. He had sent a form circular to all artists whose paintings had been rejected. "It is a little singular that among about one hundred and fifty artists who received p258 this circular, Mr. Whistler should have been the only one to discover its latent discourtesy. How great must be Mr. Whistler's capacity for detecting a snub where none exists!"
In the manner of a precocious youngster in trouble at school, Whistler wrote a sharp reply which at the same time was calculated to leave no loopholes for the sputtering "teacher" to strike back. Two days later, in the same New York Herald, Whistler was quoted:
"I can assure the gallant soldier that I have no grievance.
"Had I known that, when — over what takes the place of wine and walnuts in Holland — I remembered lightly the military methods of the jury, I was being 'interviewed,' I should have adopted as serious a tone as the original farce would admit of. . . . Your correspondent, I fancy, felt much more warmly, than did I, wrongs that — who knows? — are doubtless rights in the army; and my sympathies I confess, are completely with the General, who did only, as he complains, his duty in that state of life in which it had pleased God, and the War Department, to call him, when, according to order, he signed that naïvely authoritative note, circular, warrant, or what not — for he did irretrievably fasten his name to it, whether with pen or print, thereby hopelessly making the letter his own. Thus we have responsibility, like greatness, sometimes thrust upon us."
The letter to the newspapers was as usual autographed with the Whistler butterfly. This device inscribed on every Whistler document from his early life in Europe became as well known as the copyrighted insignias of many merchandised items. It was equally good advertising for the artist. After the disillusioned period of bankruptcy on the heels of the Ruskin trial, Whistler added a long tail to his butterfly, perhaps as a symbol of his embitterment.
His wife Beatrice Godwin died in 1896. On that day Whistler was seen to be wildly rushing across the fields with his clothes in disarray and his hair mussed. Bereavement enveloped him and soon he returned to his Paris, seeking perhaps the p259 fountain of youth. There he settled down to a bizarre existence full of bitterness.
Wars interested him. After the Spanish-American affair, an American officer visited Whistler and began telling him of the mistakes and blunders which the commanders had committed. Whistler, though, would not hear of them for he declared that the thought of it was treason. As an old West Pointer he would stand up for his superiors. Only the British made blunders was his idea, and eagerly he searched the papers for news of British difficulties in the Boer War.
In 1902 Whistler's health was failing rapidly. His social affairs were few. One eveningb a young officer who had recently completed four years of teaching at West Point,c came to dinner with his wife. The artist was a little late, but when he arrived, he was "more than usually cordial and distinguished and elegant — the West Point officer in perfection." In the Whistler Journal the Pennells described the party. The young army couple were delighted at the chance of meeting Whistler. They told him that he had "become a tradition at West Point, where on a certain stairway, hung with the work of cadets, his drawings (held) a place of honour." When he entered the conversation, Whistler "remembered the buildings in every possible detail. He was disgusted when he heard that the cadets now play football." He stated positively, "They should hold themselves apart and not allow the other colleges and universities to dispute with them for a ball kicked round the field — it is beneath the dignity of officers of the United States." Whistler enjoyed the evening, especially "at their telling him how he was remembered there (West Point) and how the old officers who had been at West Point at the same time often spoke of him, but liked less well the reminder that his was the class of '54 (sic — should be ex‑'55)."
Whistler kept up the pretense of work to the last, even though he could not force the brittle little figure and the tired mind to follow his directions. His clothes went down into sloppiness when he became too tired and weak to care for p260 them. The spectators for whom he had lived were no more.
When the Pennells came to No. 74 Cheyne Walk, Chelsea, to do his biography just before his death on July 17, 1903, Whistler once more called upon them to deliver certain drawings and paintings to be destroyed. Only those he considered worthy were to survive him. His spirit was there to the last, and certainly, in the life of Whistler there is much of courage and work to admire. Whistler summed up his philosophy when he said: "It is better to live on bread and cheese and paint beautiful things than to live like Dives and paint pot‑boilers."
1 From Whistler, published by Farrar & Rinehart.
2 Published by Harper & Bros.
a The biographical sketch appended to Prof. Bailey's entry in Cullum's Register, linked above, includes a more detailed account of the disaster in which his family perished.
b The evening was July 11, 1900: as told in the Pennell's Whistler Journal, p75, with the phrase quoted by Baumer; the date somewhat corroborated by their mention of Capt. Hunter's being on leave but on his way to San Francisco — or, as Cullum's Register has it, to serve on the China Relief Expedition starting in September, 1900.
Whether the opening words of Baumer's paragraph, "In 1902" should be corrected to "in 1900" is hard to say; on balance I plump for another bit of ambiguous writing: in 1902 Whistler was on the decline, and the little dinner party in 1900 was an example of his equally declining social life.
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